It is absurd to say it is a title-or-bust season for a program yet to win a conference championship, but welcome to this season of Wichita State hoops under Jody Adams.
After tying the school record of 20 wins last season, the Shockers return seven players with Division I starting experience and six seniors. That should make WSU one of the favorites to win the Missouri Valley, along with usual suspects Creighton, Illinois State and Missouri State.
The expectations are tied to WSU’s senior trio of Jessica Diamond, Chynna Turner and Jazimen Gordon, who will be the first four-year players recruited by Adams to graduate.
“A title is the next step to take,” Turner said. “That’s why we’re all here. We’re here to win.”
No coach will argue that WSU has the most talented roster, top to bottom, in the conference. Alex Harden may be the most gifted player in the league, and she’s only a sophomore.
But there was a reason why the Shockers suffered a second-half slide that ended NCAA Tournament talk.
“We understand what is lacking and what is lacking is really hard to get,” Adams said. “The experience is there, the athleticism is there, the ability is there, but there are some details we have to get and we call that mental toughness.”
Rebounding has always been an issue for WSU under Adams because of her pressure defense, but the team improved last season and should continue with the return of Michelle Price from injury.
Adams went a step further this season to tinker with the philosophy of the help-side defense. The Shockers will still apply pressure on the ballhandler, but off-ball defenders will now follow the ball more than their man.
“That’s putting us in better position when shots go up,” Turner said. “We’re more aware of where the ball is coming off and where it’s being shot.”
Adams has never preferred one-on-one offense, but Diamond might be the most valuable player as she is the only player capable, or at least willing, to create her own shot when the offense breaks down.
But the X-factor will be Harden, who joined the “20,000-shots-made club” in the offseason. Adams will experiment with Harden’s athletic 5-foot-11 frame all over the court, but finding the right role for the sophomore will be crucial.
After seeing Harden play in the first exhibition game, Adams said her potential was “All-American” status.
Wichita State may need it early on, as the non-conference schedule is demanding. But this is a team that can handle it.
Expectations are for the Shockers to capitalize on the situation. The rest of the Valley is in reload mode, while the Shockers are the veteran bunch for the first time.
At the end of the season, WSU expects another first, as well.
“Our leadership will be the one thing that makes the biggest difference this year,” Diamond said. “You won’t find it in a stat line. You can’t put a number on how our leadership affects how we play and how this team moves with each other. That’s what makes us special this year.”